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Olympic swimmer on comeback from cancer

ATLANTA - Eric Shanteau looks as healthy as any other swimmer on deck at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center.

But there's still those nagging fears that all cancer victims must overcome: What if the doctors didn't get it all? What if the dreaded disease is hiding somewhere in his body, waiting to strike again?

Shanteau, one of the most inspiring athletes of the Beijing Olympics, is competing this week for the first time since his surgery for testicular cancer. He hopes the thrill of the race will help him get on with the rest of his life, a minefield of doubts that reveals itself with every little ache and pain.

'You're like, 'Is that cancer? Is it coming back?' said Shanteau, one of several Olympians taking part in the U.S. Short Course Nationals that began Thursday. 'That's kind of what I've had to learn to deal with, and what I'm still just learning to deal with.'

He's off to a good start in Atlanta. Shanteau finished second to Olympic gold medalist Ryan Lochte in the 200-yard individual medley, beating his personal best when he touched in 1 minute, 42.59 seconds. Lochte won going away in 1:40.89.

'That came out of nowhere,' a beaming Shanteau said.

His plight leading up to the Beijing Olympics made him a rallying figure for millions touched by cancer.

Receiving his shocking diagnosis shortly before the U.S. trials, Shanteau didn't tell anyone except those closest to him. Then, he surprisingly made the team in the 200-meter breaststroke, beating out overwhelming favorite and former world record-holder Brendan Hansen.

Shanteau was left with an excruciating decision. He chose to pursue his lifelong goal of swimming in the Olympics, even though it meant putting off surgery until after the games and running the risk of the cancer spreading. He went public with his story, hoping it would show others that even the dreaded C-word doesn't have to ruin your dreams.

While there was no Hollywood ending in the pool - Shanteau was eliminated in the semifinals - the cancer remained in check, from all indications. Shanteau underwent surgery on Aug. 26, two days after the closing ceremonies, and tests since then have come back normal. He got the latest bit of good news just before Thanksgiving.

Even so, Shanteau had to be talked out of further treatment. Worried that his cancer might return, he strongly considered undergoing a round of chemotherapy, which likely would have been delayed his comeback while he dealt with miserable side effects such as nausea, weakness and hair loss.

'Everyone prepares you for dealing with the cancer, the surgery, getting rid of it, yada, yada, yada,' he said. 'But no one prepares you for life after it."

Shanteau turned to many of the same support groups that had called on him to serve as a face for the victims, the one who was supposed to provide hope but found himself overwhelmed by the dread of being stricken again.

'I expected to just be free and clear and done with it after the surgery,' he said. 'But that's not how my thought process was. I started thinking, 'What if it comes back? Is it going to come back?'

That's what brought him back to the pool much quicker than Olympic stars such as Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin, both still on break since Beijing.

'This was sort of a way for me to take back a little bit of control,' Shanteau said.

He returned to training about 5 1/2 weeks after his surgery. His first attempt lasted mere seconds - as soon as he extended his arms above his head, he felt an intense stretching sensation in his groin area, where doctors made a deep incision to remove the cancerous testicle

He took another week off, felt fine and has been training ever since. The short course meet gave him a chance to return to competition in his hometown - he grew up in Lilburn - and get a feel for where he needs to be to qualify for the world championships in Rome next summer.

Shanteau had been projecting the 2009 worlds as his farewell meet, the place where he hoped to achieve his one unfulfilled goal: winning a medal in a major international competition. Now, he's not so sure about a timetable.

'At this point, London is not out of the question at all,' he said, referring to the 2012 Olympics. 'I'm still getting faster. I'm still getting stronger. It's hard to retire on a note like that.'